Flashback: Beck, Marionettes, and a Dinner Table (2006)
A little over six years ago I attended one of the greatest concerts that I’ve ever seen, one that likely will remain in my best of all time for as long as I’m a fan of live music. It was the one and only time I’ve seen Beck live, at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden on October 18, 2006, as part of his tour supporting his album The Information. In the second half of his career, Beck had a tendency to vacillate between very upbeat albums (Midnight Vultures, Guero) and more dour ones (Mutations, Sea Change). For some reason many casual fans are not familiar with The Information, but it is classic upbeat Beck, arguably as good as the more popular Guero. I have alluded to Beck being a genius, and The Information may have been the album/tour that caused his ascension in my mind from brilliant musician to genius-discussion-worthy. A few nights ago I was reminded of this when my TiVo was kind enough to suggest an old Saturday Night Live rerun also from October of 2006 starring Hugh Laurie and featuring music guest Beck.
The original episode contains two performances by Beck, but the compressed for syndication 1-hour repeat on VH1 Classic only has the first, which is a shame. The episode is not very funny and would have benefited from more music, not less. In fact, the two funniest skits (I’m sure to Lorne Michael’s display) are those two Beck numbers which are small pieces of the larger show that I saw that night at MSG. First is “Nausea,” which appears in the syndicated repeat. Watch it here:
Now that’s how you do a puppet show! (Dear TMBG: Please watch and learn.) Look at the detail in that little puppet band. The mannerisms, the mouth movements, the dress – it’s eerie how well represented Beck and his band are. Seeing this at the concert (where the puppet show went on for more than one song) I was amazed at how perfectly choreographed it was.
Later on in the SNL show was an extended rendition of “Clap Your Hands,” which is even better than “Nausea.” To have dropped this from the episode is a travesty, as it is hands down the best thing that happened in those 90 minutes. Watch it here:
I vividly recall the very long version of that dinner table scene at the concert. Unlike on SNL, there was a slow build up with light tapping of utensils on cups and plates, which very gradually built up to the full performance you see here. For the first few minutes, there is no way to know that Beck was about to launch into full song with only the dinner-guests as musical accompaniment (along with his awesome ukulele). When “Clap Your Hands” actually begins, Beck has broken down the walls of all my concert-going expectations. There is that eureka moment when I think to myself “oh my god, he is really doing this.” Then, when it seems like it cannot get any better, funnier, more entertaining, more brilliant, you see the puppets seated at the mini-dinner table matching the band move for move. Genius indeed.
The Information is quietly full of these small acts of genius. The CD cover art is mostly blank, but the disc comes with a sticker pack which can be applied to the cover to make your own design. It is the only instance I can think of where the artist has ceded artwork over to each individual fan. And he did this at a time when CD sales were going the way VHS players, so other artists were putting less and less thought into the artwork. Similarly, at the concert, instead of the generic assortment of t-shirts, the merchandising table was a t-shirt press where for under $30 one could purchase any color t-shirt and apply as many iron-labels as you like and have it pressed on the spot. I have to believe that Beck was part of each and every one of these details.
I promise that one day I will make my complete case for beck as “Advanced Genius.” After The Information, Beck only released one more album (Modern Guilt in 2008) but everything he has done since then has been in furtherance of his brilliant legacy. For now, I hope you enjoy those fantastic videos. I’ve also found some photos from the concert and the 31 – yes 31! – song set list.
 While I’m here, I’ll throw another name out there that would benefit from Hartley’s “Advanced Genius” analysis – Jack White.
 TiVo suggestions are to television what Siri is to the iPhone, only the exact opposite. Somehow my TiVo knows better than I do that I might be in the mood for an old episode of SNL, or That ‘70s Show, or the movie “Groundhog Day.” Siri doesn’t even know what a television is but is more than happy to search the web for me for that.
 Seriously, this is not a funny episode of SNL. Don’t waste your time. Even if you’re a Hugh Laurie fan.